Republican loyalties divided before Super Tuesday
Valdosta, Ga — On the eve of Super Tuesday’s crucial primaries, a sharp new divide erupted between Republicans who pledge to fall in line behind Donald Trump if he wins their party’s nomination and others who insist they can never back the bombastic billionaire.
The fissure could have major implications beyond the primaries, exposing the looming challenges in uniting the party after the election, no matter who wins.
Meanwhile, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is solidifying her lead. Like Trump, Clinton could begin putting her party’s nomination out of reach for rival Bernie Sanders with a strong showing Tuesday.
Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, a rising star among conservatives, became the first current senator to publicly raise the prospect of backing a third party option if Trump clinches the nomination. In a letter posted on Facebook late Sunday, Sasse urged Republicans to consider whether a party led by Trump would still represent their interests.
“If our party is no longer working for the things we believe in — like defending the sanctity of life, stopping Obamacare, protecting the Second Amendment, etc. — then people of good conscience should stop supporting that party until it is reformed,” he wrote.
The Associated Press asked Republican senators and governors across the country if they would support Trump if he secured the nomination. Just under half of those who responded would not commit to backing him, foreshadowing a potentially extraordinary break this fall.
“I am increasingly concerned by Donald Trump’s statements and behavior, and I have serious concerns about his ability to win the general election and provide presidential leadership,” Indiana Sen. Dan Coats said in a statement to AP.
The concern among Republican leaders appeared to grow in light of Trump’s refusal to immediately disavow former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s support.
Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 nominee, called that “disqualifying.” And South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, campaigning in Atlanta alongside Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said she would “not stop fighting a man who refuses to disavow the KKK.”
Trump said he had not understood the interviewer who first raised the question about Duke, and he did later repudiate him. “How many times do I have to continue to disavow people?” he said.
Several high-profile Republicans and conservative writers have embraced an anti-Trump social media campaign, using the Twitter hashtag “NeverTrump.”
Trump has won three of four primary contests, roiling a party that had assumed his populist appeal with voters would fizzle. Instead, he’s only grown stronger and appears to be in commanding position heading into Super Tuesday, the biggest single-day delegate haul of the year.
Tensions boiled over during Trump’s rally Monday in Radford, Virginia, where he was repeatedly disrupted by demonstrators, including 20 or more chanting “Black lives matter.”
If Trump sweeps most of the states up for grabs Tuesday, he could amass a delegate lead that would be difficult for any rival to overcome. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is banking on a win in his home state to keep him in the race, while Rubio wants to stay close in the delegate count until the primary hits his home state of Florida on March 15.
In the Democratic race, Clinton has shed nearly all references to her opponent, choosing instead to focus on Republican front-runner Donald Trump in advance of Tuesday’s contests in the South and around the country. Sanders, meanwhile, remains resolute in his message, offering his standard economic-focused stump speech and looking past last weekend’s thrashing by Clinton in South Carolina.
“We are listening to the American people and their pain and their needs rather than hustling all over the country collecting millions of dollars from the 1 percent,” Sanders said at a Minneapolis rally on Monday, pointing to his agenda of overhauling the campaign finance system and expanding Social Security benefits for retirees.
Sanders hopes to score victories in Minnesota and Massachusetts, where he was traveling to later Monday, and in Oklahoma and Colorado. He was ending his day in his home state of Vermont, which stands as the only sure thing in his Super Tuesday calculus, underscoring Clinton’s sky-high expectations of padding her delegate lead this week.
Clinton, powered by strong support among black voters, was in firm control in several Southern states holding contests on Tuesday, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.